If you want to publish a book, it is worth knowing the pros and cons of indie vs traditional publishing. Traditional publishers require no money and time investment from authors; they edit, print and market the book for free. However, they have extremely low acceptance rates, offer low royalties, a slow route to the market and limited manuscript rights. Indie publishing gives you freedom over book production and marketing, a quick way to the market and the highest royalties. Still, it requires considerable time or money (or both) investment to make the book successful.
What is traditional publishing?
Traditional publishers are referred to as the Big Five. They are old, enormous, international corporations that make profits worth billions of dollars. They include:
- Penguin Random House dates back to the early nineteenth century and has more than 300 imprints worldwide.
- HarperCollins, established in 1817, is one of the most prolific English-language publishers, including well-known imprints like Harlequin.
- Simon & Schuster publishes over 2,000 titles annually and has 35 imprints.
- Hachette Livre was founded in 1826 in France and currently has 60 imprints.
- Macmillan Publishers was founded in 1843 and operates in over 70 countries. It originally published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Jungle Book.
How to publish a book with a traditional publisher?
First, do your research, identify the target readership and market and find an agent. You need an agent because many traditional publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. If you are a non-fiction writer, attach your book proposal when contacting a literary agent. On the other hand, fiction writers must provide a complete manuscript. Next, if the agent chooses to work with you, they will present your text to the publishers. Alternatively, if you reach the publishers directly, provide the book proposal and a sample chapter or the finished manuscript, depending on your genre. Finally, if the publisher accepts your submission, they will handle your book’s production, marketing, distribution and warehousing.
What are the pros of traditional publishing?
Comparing indie vs traditional publishing shows both have advantages and disadvantages. Traditional publishing may suit some authors because it includes no financial investment required from the author. Also, some people consider it more prestigious to publish with traditional publishers.
So, what are the specific benefits of publishing with a traditional publisher?
- Publishing services. Once the publisher accepts your manuscript, you will not pay for the publishing processes. Specifically, developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, indexing, cover design, typesetting, proofreading and printing will be free of charge. When the book is out, the publisher will promote it and invest in warehousing, distribution and retail.
- Wide marketing reach. A team of marketing professionals will make your book stand out in this highly competitive market. Seeking a return on their investment, the publisher will commit to promoting your book. This will ensure its visibility on the market and will drive sales.
- Validation. Some consider traditional publishers more prestigious than indie publishing. This is underlined by the assumption that because they only choose to work with a few selected authors, they guarantee the highest quality of the content with their decades or centuries-old expertise in publishing.
- Advance payment. When you publish a book with the Big Five, you may receive an advance payment against future sales.
- Wide distribution. If you publish with the Big Five, well-known bookshops will have your book on their shelves. This means the print copies will be widely available and potentially displayed.
What are the cons of traditional publishing?
With the rise of indie publishing platforms, authors have come to evaluate the merits and demerits of indie vs traditional publishing. The disadvantages include no book rights, insignificant royalties, a long route to the market, low acceptance rates and no creative control over the book.
- Ownership of the manuscript rights. A contract with a traditional publisher most often provides them with a book ownership rights clause. This means that the author no longer controls what will happen to the book and in what formats and mediums it will be sold. Book rights may include print, ebook, audiobook, movie, translation, foreign, television adaptation and large print edition rights.
- Small royalties. Royalties offered by traditional publishers vary depending on the format or medium of the book. On average, the author’s royalties from paperback sales equate to 5–7%, hardcover — 15%, and ebook and audiobook — 25%. This range is significantly lower than the 35–70% range offered by the indie publishing platforms.
- Slow route to the market. Because of the complexity and number of processes involved in traditional publishing, it may take two years before the manuscript arrives in the bookstores. Most of these processes do not occur concurrently. Each has its place in the grander book production process. Even before the manuscript appears at the commissioning editor’s desk, another impediment is the wait for the agent to respond. (A commissioning editor is an editor in charge of accepting manuscripts submitted to the publishing house.) Then, if they decline your book proposal, the author must repeat the same process with another agent.
- No creative and marketing control. Traditionally, authors do not have control over creative and marketing processes. These processes may include choosing the book cover, jacket or illustrations or selecting social media influencers to promote the book. Authors may at least voice their opinions or, in some cases, influence these decisions. But ultimately, the publisher holds the creative and marketing control.
- Low acceptance rates. To publish a book, you need to consider two hurdles. Firstly, it is the chances of the agent accepting your manuscript. Secondly, the chances of the publishing house accepting the manuscript submitted by the agent. Apparently, agents accept 1% of the manuscripts they receive. As is, that is an effective blocker. Now, consider that very few books the agent sends to the commissioning editor will land a deal. On average, traditional publishers accept only 1–2% of received manuscripts annually. It may vary, but over 95% of the rejected manuscripts are not up to par with the publishing standards, including:
What is indie publishing?
Using the term indie publishing, I refer to two types of publishing:
- Using print-on-demand (POD) platforms like Ingram Sparks, Draft2Digital, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), Google Play Books or Barnes & Noble. They provide book and cover templates and only print a copy and charge the author when a book is sold.
- Publishing with small presses, non-profits, academic presses, boutique publishing houses or any publisher not associated with the Big Five and their imprints.
What is indie publishing?
Because the author has complete freedom of choice, there is no one set indie publishing pathway. They must choose a POD platform or a press and find the publishing services. These services include editing, proofreading, indexing, typesetting, illustrations or cover design. Authors may outsource some or all of them to freelance professionals or do them themselves, depending on their preferences and time and budget constraints. When the book is ready, it will be available on sale on the POD platform and printed and shipped every time someone buys a copy. The POD will charge the author their fee, and the author will receive the rest of the profit (discussed in the next section).
What are the pros of indie publishing?
Indie vs traditional publishing has many advantages. Compared to the traditional publishing houses, it offers higher royalties, faster route to market and complete control and ownership rights.
- Highest royalties. Royalties offered by the PODs may vary depending on the price of the book, format or country of distribution. They range between 35% and 70%:
- Fastest route to the market. Without the agent and commissioning editor’s review, self-published books have a swift turnaround time. You could even see your book live within six months.
- Complete control. To publish a book as a self-publisher means complete freedom. Not only creative and marketing freedom, but control over all aspects with no oversight and external controllers or reviewers.
- Ownership of the manuscript rights. As an indie author, you own all book rights. Book rights may include print, ebook, audiobook, movie, translation, television adaptation and large print edition.
What are the cons of indie publishing?
Indie publishing is brilliant, but like everything else, it also has drawbacks. It requires time and/or money investment from the author and may be a financial risk to them, depending on how successful the sales are. Furthermore, some people consider self-published books of lesser quality because of the lack of review and editing offered by the publishing houses. Finally, indie books rarely reach bookshops, which limits their visibility and availability on the market and may ultimately affect their sales.
- Time and money investment. Although it is possible to publish your book for free, some things (editing, ISBN, book cover) will enhance the value of the book and may be worth spending money on. If you choose to carry out the publishing (editing, typesetting, cover design, proofreading) and marketing processes yourself, be prepared for a substantial time investment. If the outcome is unprofessional in any way (language, visuals, marketing), this will reflect on you as an author and publisher.
- Less prominence. Because indie authors’ editing or design budgets may be significantly smaller than those of publishing houses, the presentation quality of their books may not be as good. Equally, because these books did not undergo the commissioning editors’ review, some may consider their overall content quality lower than those published by traditional publishing houses.
- No advance. Since indie publishing is the author’s own endeavour, there is no advance on account of the future sales of the book (as is the case with traditional publishers).
- Financial risk. The frightening truth of publishing is that most books do not sell. For a book to be commercially viable, it needs to sell over 5,000 copies, and 86% of books do not achieve this. If your book does not sell, in the best-case scenario, you receive no return on your time investment. Pessimistically, you will suffer financial losses if you invest in editing, book design, marketing or ISBN when your book does not succeed commercially.
- Limited distribution. Traditional publishers stock the best-known high-street bookshops globally. What about self-published books? They usually do not reach the shelves of bookstores.
Indie vs traditional publishing has pros and cons, and publishing with either is suitable for different manuscripts and authors. The key to an informed decision is to find the option that will result in having your work published and retailed.
Navigating the publishing world may be overwhelming but also extremely rewarding. If you are still struggling to decide which route to take to publish a book you should take, follow me on Mastodon, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or join my newsletter for more from me, including editing, publishing and writing tips. You can also ask me for a free sample edit (and remember to use my early bird discount) to prepare your manuscript for publication.